Blind Refugee Claimant wins Canadian residency after living in church for four years
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, October 26, 2009 8:39PM EDT
A blind refugee claimant from Algeria who was made to feel like a "loser" when he was rejected from Canada because he had no family or job says he's a "winner" and he'll prove it now that he's been allowed to stay in the country.
That moment of triumph came after he spent almost four years holed up in a Catholic church.
Abdelkader Belaouni won the right to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds after taking sanctuary in the Montreal church, which allowed him to evade a deportation since Jan. 1, 2006.
He's relied on the kindness of strangers who are now like family and he's used the time to make music and write.
Now that he's free to leave Saint-Gabriel church he plans to work at an immigration centre, launch his second album, and publish two books.
"I'm happy. I'm so happy. It's like I'm born again," he said Monday in an interview.
"I want to tell you something: I'm not a loser. I'm a winner and I have a lot of friends who support me."
Belaouni has lived in a cramped upstairs room in a century-old church building in the city's Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood.
He has just a few meagre possessions - among them a small bed, an electric keyboard and a blind-assistive computer.
The Algerian man, who lost his vision 16 years ago and suffers from diabetes, fled to New York City in 1996 after civil war erupted in his homeland.
After 9-11 he said he was placed on a special registration list because he came from a Muslim country and his passport was confiscated. He feared he might soon be imprisoned and deported so he came to Canada in March 2003.
He worked as a volunteer for several community groups, but was denied refugee status by Citizenship and Immigration Canada because he was unemployed and had no family in the country.
His lawyer Jared Will refused to discuss details of the case but attributes his client's victory, at least in part, to the widespread public support he received.
Over the years, about 250 organizations in Quebec and MPs from each of the four major political parties have thrown their support behind Belaouni.
A committee was established to fight for his cause and thousands of people have signed petitions, taken part in demonstrations and sent postcards to the immigration department on his behalf.
"For three years, nine months and 22 days, Mr. Belaouni and his supporters steadfastly insisted that justice could only be done if he were granted permanent residence in Canada, as this was the only way that he could regain the dignity and autonomy that he achieved in Canada before being forced in sanctuary," Will said in an e-mail.
"His victory is a victory for all those who strive for justice and dignity for migrants and refugees."
The federal government moved to discourage other asylum-seekers from following Belaouni's example.
A spokeswoman for the immigration department said it "does not condone individuals hiding in places of worship to avoid removal from Canada."
Jacqueline Roby also said that each situation is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Officials carefully weighed all factors in the Belaouni case before reaching a fair decision that maintains the integrity of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, she added.
After learning he was finally free last Thursday, Belaouni gathered for dinner with about 40 people at a friend's house.
"I'm not supposed to eat sweets but I ate this day," he said, referring to his diabetes. "The friends, everybody was crying. Hugging and crying."
Belaouni said his new album, which contains 13 love songs in French and English, will be called "Three years and nine months between four walls." His first book will detail his life story while the second will be an account of the Algerian revolution.
Belaouni said he also looks forward to hosting his monthly social justice community radio program, "Hour of Power," in a studio rather than from the church.